How relevant is contemporary art in the lives of ordinary people for whom life itself is a struggle? How many people actually frequent a gallery through curiosity or interest? If the role of traditional museum culture is for cultural and ideological exchange, is it a successful medium to reach a diverse audience?
All these and many questions have propelled my decisions in making the last series of works in the exhibition Through the Looking Glass. Apart from documenting and submitting my work as part of a doctoral thesis it was important for me to reach far beyond the traditional gallery audience. From investigating the role of feminist artists in history it is clear that the role of ‘artists as change agents’ is of benefit to the lives of women and the development of sound human rights principles based on freedom, equity and access.
The value of art is often overlooked and undervalued in society. Art relies upon and needs a partnership with an audience to complete its process; but how does an artist reconcile a product that is not so easily digested by more than half the population? Woman’s issues and social conditions in society have been unpalatable and confrontational for male audiences. My task for the project was clear, to produce works that are accessible as well as committed to an ideology that educate and inform. Armed with skill and knowledge of a variety of processes acquired from years of art practice, I decided on using art as an intervention strategy to address violence against women.
As an adjunct to the exhibition, a documentary video provided anecdotal evidence that gave visibility and voice to the diverse women from Far North Queensland who participated in a forum. Six tours were planned for 2005 and 2006. To facilitate audience building with diverse communities, I planned workshops through the Migrant Settlement Services to coincide with the exhibitions. This enabled me to reach people who do not usually access the mainstream art networks.
My criterion for the exhibition was to be authentic and open, and create a personal narrative that could resonate with diverse audiences. My research aim to explore the way external gazes formed my self-identity and reality, through various players in my life, was based on the strong memory of the pressure for compliance and rigid expectations for my behaviour while growing up in a patriarchal Hindu framework.
As a child, I questioned the privileges for male members of the family and the double standards in culture that were glaringly obvious. The women’s roles were even more puzzling; as gate-keepers, women procured compliance by restricting movement and censorship that further inflicted control and misery upon women. I found the paradoxes in my mother’s life overwhelming and questioned her resignation to circumstances and her inability to transcend her unhappiness.
All the works relating to my personal stories link family experiences and explain my initial motivation behind the research. For example, the work Sati, Virtuous Woman (Plate 1) dedicated to the memory of my mother, was separated from the rest, to hang alone, with this introduction: Unknowingly, I saw my mother’s gaze for the last time; yet something made me look at her. It was to memorize this last gaze… (Artist Statement, catalogue, Through the Looking Glass, 2004).
The image Acquiescence (Plate 2) was the last photograph I had taken of my mother with my father. I selected this image as a metaphor for her life as I perceived it, to visually portray her acquiescence. In the photograph she looks away, locked in her own dreams of release from this life. My father’s gaze is dominant and his presence takes centre stage, while she sits as the insignificant other. In each subsequent frame my mother fades further as an image.
My research also revealed the power politics that subjugate women through economic dependence on males and through marriage. Stereotypical roles assigned to women and body politics through fashion and mass media undermine women’s confidence and their capacity for career development and economic freedom.
The installation, Cultural Windows metaphorically connects the audience with the rhetoric between patriarchal structures and the violence that occurs in the lives of women. It is designed to give the audience a visual representation of the cultural fiction that forms the role of women in four different cultures based on my familiarity with them when living in Malaysia. The issues behind the politics of representation in religion and culture are highlighted in these works, uncovering social coercion and visually demonstrating the reasons for complicit behaviour in women. Covert issues of control and violence are clarified visually to the audience as an explicit demonstration of patriarchal agenda.
The installations on body politics dismantle existing power structures in body and power politics by using three life size mirrors and mannequins in the works Bollywood Gaze, Con Words and Black and White. Sandblasted text on the mirror in Con Words create the context for the dialogue between the mannequin and the mirror as it does, similarly, in Black and White where the visual link reinforces the inherent power issues in colour.
As a methodology, this exhibition uses feminist theory to propel the women’s movement through visual analyses of women’s identity and supports the practices that create visibility and validity for women in society. As a strategy to uncover the politics of the representation of women, it creates awareness of the institutional framework that determines reading of the role of women for the sole survival of patriarchy.
The outcomes from the tours are the most gratifying part of an artist’s practice. An unexpected outcome is the invitation by the Immigrant Women’s Support Service to present a keynote address. It enabled the dialogue and discourse embedded in my research to reach a meaningful dimension; with the people who deal directly with the effects of violence against women, the service providers, the legal and health framework, as well as government bodies.
Visual imagery is a powerful tool that is capable of transcending cultural differences and highlighting universal concerns in society. The messages behind my work contain layers of meaning that are capable of creating a psychological impact on the audience. The way each member of the audience or onlooker receives the information is variable and subjective. However, the outcomes of the exhibition reveal that there are still women who cannot see the relevance of the rhetoric within their own lives and choose to remain in the comfort zone of acquiescence.
This exhibition reminds women of the need to take control of their own lives and find ways to reflect their identity without succumbing to external social pressures and complicit behaviours. It elucidates the role of the gaze in shaping behaviour and self-perception and demonstrates how it affects self-confidence so essential for success in life. If this body of work reminds women to be more confident and continue to be strong instead of propping up meaningless obstruction and competition to serve the needs of patriarchy, then it would have succeeded in a small way.
SASI VICTOIRE - email: email@example.com
Articles from 3 other presenters at the IWSS 20th Anniversary Forum: